Resistance is futile. Not succumbing to the cheeky charms of Gypsy at Signature Theatre is like planting a raspberry on the pugnacious puss of Mama Rose herself. Not a good idea if you value your life. Far better to sit back and let director Joe Calarco’s emotive love letter to stage moms and the vaudeville-burlesque eras wash over you like a warm bubble bath.
Based on cerebral stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1957 memoirs, Gypsy became a musical in 1959 featuring a trifecta of Broadway bliss—a score by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that fit the melodies like a burlesque queen’s satin gloves and a clever book by Arthur Laurents—not to mention Ethel Merman in the titular title role of Rose.
The pleasure starts before music director Jon Kalbfleisch and the orchestra strike up what must be the finest Overture ever—which is performed with bounce and brio and a couple of Spike Jones-style percussive flourishes to set the brassy tone of the musical. Scenic designer James Kronzer transforms the Max theatre into a classic old vaudeville palace, with glowing brass fixtures and marquee posters painted on weathered brick walls touting the many acts and stars gracing the circuit.
In the midst of this milieu we meet Rose (a tenacious Sherri L. Edelen, who brings abundant coloration to the big numbers and smaller moments, like “Small World” ), the Medea of stage mothers, yelling “Sing Out, Louise!” while her daughters, the Shirley Temple-esque Baby June (Erin Cearlock) and the tomboy Louise (Ellen Roberts) tap dance and baton twirl through a kitschy rendition of “May We Entertain You,” a number created by maelstrom Mama Rose that will change through the years—adding a singing cow, Uncle Sam, farmboys and other accoutrements—but will also remain resolutely cheesy as Rose drags her girls cross country from venue to venue in a tireless effort to make them stars.
Never mind education, never mind sleeping eight to a room in fleabag hotels and eating leftover Chinese food for breakfast, Rose has a dream—expressed in the thrilling song “Some People,” which Miss Edelen potently delivers with frustration and greed searing every syllable. Rose never got her chance in show biz and is wounded by a pattern of every important adult in her life walking out on her—but she is determined, by gum, to give her daughters what she didn’t achieve.
Steamrolling her progeny and her ever-tolerant lover/agent Herbie (Mitchell Hébert, touching as a soft touch with a great, big heart), Rose makes good on her promise and gets the act to New York. However, her timing is a bit off since vaudeville is dying as audience flock to movies and other entertainments.
Gypsy exuberantly charts this downward trajectory and the inevitable march of time, as June (played by Nicole Mangi with clamorous sparkle) is no baby anymore and Louise (Maria Rizzo, giving us a darkly internal Louise) is far too old to be getting stuffed animals for her birthday. There is a great flickering silent-movie special effect as the sisters and the chorus boys grow up right in front of our eyes. Later, June and Louise convey their feelings in “If Momma Was Married,” adding layers of wistful need and vexation to the soaring notes and swingy cadences.
By the end of the first act, June has flown the coop with one of the male dancers (she eventually becomes the successful actress June Havoc) and Rose laser-locks her sights on Louise, who up to this time is defiantly un-girly—she mopes around in boy’s clothes and a pale-faced scowl like Rooney Mara and gives off heavy-duty “Girl, Interrupted” vibes.
The bombastic first-act closer, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is not sung triumphantly, but is brilliantly interpreted by Miss Edelen as an act of desperation. The optimism conveyed in this song is an incantation—Rose is willing, conjuring assurance. It just has to happen.
The second act charts Louise’s transformation into the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee—a move that costs Rose big-time as she loses Herbie—but not before the buoyant “Together Wherever We Go,” featuring Mr. Sondheim’s slap-happy rhymes– June and almost Louise in the process. A major highlight is “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” in which three old pros instruct Louise in the finer points of stripping.
Closes January 26, 2014
4200 Campbell Avenue
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission and 1 pause
Tickets: $47 – $104
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The gladiator-like Mazeppa (Donna Migliaccio) bumps and grinds to the bleat of a horn, Electra (Tracy Lynn Olivera, who may have the distinction of being the first majorly pregnant actress to assume the role) illuminates her assets and Tessie Tura (Sandy Bainum) performs faux ballet in a g-string. The sight of Miss Migliaccio’s deadpan expression while she twirls her tassels and belts out the famous lyrics “and I uh, and I uh, and I uh-uh-uh,” Miss Olivera’s dumbfounded delight when she lights up and Miss Bainum’s attempts at balletic artistry bring the house down with their sheer nerve and verve.
Louise’s schtick turns out to be class—and Miss Rizzo sidles and insinuates masterfully, all set to the diehard “Let Me Entertain You,” which shows her turning from a scared girl into an assured, star-class performer.
The show’s closer is the storied nervous breakdown set to music, “Rose’s Turn,” in which Miss Eldelen’s Rose commands the stage in a cathartic howl of hurt, dashed dreams, obstinacy and furious self-involvement.
Mr. Calarco takes a psychological approach to the musical, which results in a richer emotional experience but points up some of the disturbing aspects of the story. For example, you wonder did Mama Rose kidnap those young boys and force them into chorus boy slavery for years without pay? You have to stop yourself from calling Social Services on behalf of them and Rose’s daughters. Her treatment of her girls more than borders on abuse and Louise especially seems in dire need of therapy during adolescence.
Rose routinely steals to get by, and forces her daughter into burlesque for a couple of lousy bucks and to stay in show business. Say Rose lived through her daughters, say she was blinded by her selfish dreams, but that still doesn’t completely excuse what is portrayed onstage at Signature as the behavior of a mentally ill woman responsible for not only her children, but others. Nothing coming up roses about that.
Gypsy, a Musical Fable . Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim .Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee . Directed by Joe Calarco . Featuring Sherri L. Edelen, Mitchell Hébert, Donna Migliaccio, Sandy Bainum, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Carolyn Cole, Maria Rizzo, Vincent Kempski, Erin Cearlock, Steven Cupo, Samuel Edgerly, Alyssa Gagarin, Nicole Mangi, Dan Manning, Ethan Miller, Gannon O’Brien, John Ray, Ellen Roberts, Eli Schulman, and Joseph Tudor. Music director: Jon Kalbfleisch . Choreographer: Karma Camp . Scenic design: James Kronzer . Lighting design: Chris Lee . Costume design: Frank Labovitz . Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Jordan Wright . Alexandria Times
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Kyle Osborne . Examiner
Keith Loria . TheaterMania
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
David Siegel . ShowBizRadio
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Derek Mong . DCMetroTheaterArts